The Chinese community in Vancouver is using the Internet to bring its history and culture to life, with the recent launch of the Chinatown Heritage Alley Web site.

Sponsored by the Chinese Benevolent Association with funding from Canadian Heritage, the site is part of the Chinatown Heritage Alley Project, designed to honour the contribution of early Chinese-Canadians to the growth of Vancouver and convey the story of their life in Chinatown.
“Our idea was to have a virtual museum,” says Mah. “We don’t have enough money to go that far at this time, so we’re putting whatever information we have on the historical Chinatown area on the site.”Fred Mah, vice-chairman of the Chinese Benevolent Association, says the Web site is based on a series of panels on display in Vancouver’s Chinatown, created to commemorate different aspects of life in the community’s early days.

Eventually, Mah says the association wants the Web site to be a true virtual experience of early Chinatown. For example, a visitor would walk into a restaurant and see the different foods and how they’re cooked.

“You walk in the theatre and hear music playing and see opera (being performed), that sort of thing,” he says.

With a limited budget – $46,000 for the Web site, a lecture series and the panels – Mah says the goal of the first phase was just to get the basic information online. In the meantime, the association is looking for funding for Phase 2 of the project.

Still, Mah says he’s happy with how the first phase of how the Web site turned out, especially since the companies working on development donated much of their time and expertise to the project. Combustion Hosting also donated two years of free hosting for the site.

“As a non-technical person, I’m quite impressed by what the team has done,” says Mah. “The work they’ve put in, compared to the small amount we were able to pay them, is so much more.”

One of the four companies providing the creative talent to design the Web site was E-Atelier Inc., a creative communications and architectural firm. E-Atelier principal David Wong says the committee format may have delayed the process, which took about a year and a half, but it was important to include all who wanted to participate in this community project.

“At the end I think it turned out pretty well,” says Wong.

Wong says the site was based mainly on the panels, as well as input from community leaders. The community committee was asked to visit any Web sites they could think of in terms of heritage and the Chinese-Canadian community, and even other ethnic communities, to get inspiration and tell the designers what they liked.

“We worked with a lot of the information that was given to us, and a lot of it we couldn’t use,” says Wong. “We had to come up with a means of disseminating the information in four languages, which is a challenge in itself, and to make it interesting.”

The funding was quite tight and right now the site is a simple html-based Web site, with a little bit of flash. There’s also a few other glitches, like large amounts of information on one page that may take awhile to load. Wong says he’s hopeful the second phase funding will come through to take the project to the next level.

“The budget wasn’t large enough to accommodate all the wishes the project committee, so a lot of the work the companies did was pro bono, because we really wanted to put the extra effort into this project to make it look better,” says Wong. “It was an interesting learning experience for all of us.”

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